I enjoy research in which I start with a general idea and look around until I find something interesting. That was how I found the surprising fact that the personal income in McPherson County, Nebraska increase 84% in one year, and that’s how I came across data on past South Carolina primaries and general elections.
Residents from many states which are not Iowa or New Hampshire complain about the current primary system in which those two states have an oversized role in choosing the candidates available to the rest of us, even though those states are not very representative of the country as a whole. My first few presidential primaries were as a resident of New York. In 1992, the New Hampshire primary was held on February 18, but the New York primary wasn’t held until April 7. The race was pretty much over by then – I believe Bill Clinton had enough delegates to ensure his nomination, but I was a deficit hawk – I wanted Paul Tsongas. I wasn’t alone – Tsongas received 29% of the New York Democratic primary vote although he had already ended his campaign. Clinton ended up being a deficit hawk as well. 1999 and 2000 remain the only years since 1960 with federal budget surpluses, a direct result of a tax rate increase on high income earners that Clinton pushed though with a Democratically controlled Congress, and spending cuts made in conjunction with a Republican controlled House of Representatives later in his term.
Since Gallup began polling Americans on their political party identification in 1988, those identifying themselves as republican or democrat have reached historic lows, while those who say they are independent are at an all-time high. Those calling themselves democrats have dropped from a high of 36% in 1988 and 2008 to 29% in 2015. For republicans, the high of 34% in 2004 dropped to 26% last year, and independents have risen from 31% to 42% during that same period.
Look at those dates. The Republican Party highs were reached in George W. Bush’s first term when America had been attacked and our president active decisively to combat future threats. Then there was the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. showed off its military superiority. By 2005, however, the Iraq war was going poorly, federal deficits were ballooning and things didn’t look so good anymore.
For the Democratic Party, 2008 was likely the peak because Barack Obama’s Hope & Change message gave people hope for better times, and the promise of change from the stagnant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and from Bush Administration policies which favored the rich.
For both political parties, once things began to go poorly, a substantial number of Americans said, “We’re not with him.” We Americans don’t like to be tainted by association when things aren’t going well, so we change our political identities.
So back to the independents. If one candidate could successfully address the concerns of the 42% of Americans who identify themselves as independents, he or she would be well on the path to becoming president. That, however, is probably impossible.
Those identifying themselves as independent are not a homogenous group other than to say that they are not satisfied with either major political party. The independents will include Tea Partiers and other people who would consider themselves very conservative. They call themselves independents because they feel the Republican Party in its current state is not conservative enough. Similarly, some independents are those who feel the Democratic Party is not liberal enough. Then there are some who feel that neither party represents the middle anymore because both parties have moved to the political extremes. These three groups would all identify themselves as independents, but there is not a policy or a platform which would satisfy all factions.
Political pundits point to South Carolina as the first real test for the presidential candidates because the earlier states are not representative of the country as a whole. It doesn’t seem to me that South Carolina meets that criterion either.
U.S. Census data show that the United States is 60.9% non-Hispanic/non-Latino white, 17.1% Hispanic/Latino, 12.9% Black/African American, 5.3% Asian, 2.5% “two or more races” and 1.3% Native American/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian and other Pacific islands. South Carolina is more white (63.3%), much less Hispanic (5.4%), much more Black (27.6%), less Asian (1.5%), less mixed race (1.7%) and less Native (0.6%). For some of these race classifications, the differences are substantial.
The census data also show that South Carolina’s population is a bit older, less educated, earns less income and has more people below the poverty level than the average for the rest of the country. Alternatively, home ownership is higher and cost of living is lower, so being below the poverty level in South Carolina may not be as difficult as in more expensive states.
The differences in those who vote republican and those who vote democratic in South Carolina is hinted at with the lower “two or more races” numbers above. The races don’t mix as readily in South Carolina as in the rest of the country – 32% less mixing in blood, but a bigger difference in politics.
In Republican primaries between 2000 and 2014, the voters are 97.1% white and 2.9% nonwhite. In Democratic primaries during that same period, the voters are 40.8% white and 59.2% nonwhite. There are 88% more republican votes cast on average than democratic votes in the primaries, so South Carolina is a very safe republican state. In fact, the last time South Carolina went to a democratic presidential candidate was in 1976 when the vote went to Jimmy Carter from neighboring Georgia. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the state with 55% of the vote vs. Barack Obama’s 44%.
Because South Carolina is a safe republican state, voter participation rates among republicans are much higher than those for democrats. The only time that democrats feel they can have an impact in a primary is with the national candidate – the presidential election. On average, there are approximately double the number of democrats who vote in a presidential primary vs. a non-presidential primary (+98%). As a comparison, there is only an 8.2% increase on average among Republican voters in presidential vs. non-presidential primaries.
So South Carolina politics are very segregated with the overwhelming majority of the Republican Party voters being white and the vast majority of African Americans who vote in a primary do so for the Democratic Party. It makes me feel a little sad for the democrats. They have almost no voice in federal government, and by extension, that has disenfranchised the African American population. With exception of the 6th Congressional District which was gerrymandered to have a majority black population (57%), every U.S. Senator and Representative from South Carolina is a republican.
I don’t feel that South Carolina is representative of the country as a whole, but is there another state which should be granted their early primary status and the power that comes with it? I don’t know. On the republican side, you have a well organized party which is inclusive with respect to fundamentalists Christians, fiscal and social conservatives, and significant numbers of military personnel and veterans, but not inclusive with respect to race. The Republican candidate they choose may not have the appeal needed for the more racially diverse general election, although other than 2012 (Newt Gingrich), South Carolina has a good track record of picking Republican Party nominees.
On the democratic side, I would feel bad if the only significant impact South Carolina democratic voters can make is taken away. Of course, a candidate chosen by a majority African American voter base may also have trouble in a general election where the voters are not majority black.
I think there are other options for better early primary states than South Carolina. It really isn’t because the state’s demographics don’t look like those for the country as a whole, but rather the fact that the parties are so segregated. Because of this segregation, South Carolina gives momentum to candidates on the political extremes, and we can end up with no one in the middle come November.